Why anyone who cares about truth or justice needs to resist the strange new rules of public discourse.
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The protagonists of Calvin and Hobbes like to play a game quite unlike any other. “Calvinball” does not have any rules—at least, not any fixed ones. What rules it does have are made up on the fly and can be changed at the drop of a hat. Calvin and Hobbes spend a lot of time dashing around the yard wearing masks and carrying an absurd variety of sporting equipment. But the actions they take don’t seem to matter. Calvinball is entirely a meta-game, a game about the game. You win by changing the rules so that all of your own actions are, as if by magic, transformed into victories—and those of your opponents into defeats.
Life imitates art. In the beloved cartoon, Calvin eventually comes to eschew other sports, refusing to play anything other than Calvinball. In our public discourse, a growing number of participants have, in recent years, shunned the traditional rules of debate, insisting on playing a rhetorical form of Calvinball.
In rhetorical Calvinball, any maneuver is legitimate. You win not by running up points in accordance with a mutually agreed set of rules, but by making your opponent quit the game and surrender the field.
One prominent rule of the classic game of debate is that you should attack the argument, not the person who is making it. If you do attack the person, you commit the ad hominem fallacy. If your opponent does, you get to call them on it: “Ad hominem. Foul. Penalty.”
But many adherents of what Wesley Yang has called the “successor ideology”—you may prefer to call it the illiberal left or wokeism, depending on your tastes—just aren’t playing by the same rules. They won’t recognize the illegitimacy of an ad hominem attack. Still less will they recognize the legitimacy of calling it illegitimate. They’re not playing the same game. They’re playing Calvinball. If you call ad hominem, they will respond by saying that you are attempting to silence them. They’ve changed the rules and suddenly you have committed the penalty.
Another prominent rule of the game of rational debate is that you should never misrepresent an opponent’s argument. If you do, you’re committing the straw man fallacy. (Foul. Penalty.) But if an adherent of the successor ideology misrepresents your argument, they won’t acknowledge the foul. “That’s what your argument means to me. If you don’t see how it traumatizes me, you’re invalidating my truth.” The penalty is on you again.
Calvin invents Calvinball because he’s frustrated with organized sports, which he keeps losing. Practitioners of Rhetorical Calvinball often have similar motivations. They’re not getting what they want out of rational debate, so they’ve decided to abandon its rules.
It would be churlish to dismiss the anger that motivates this rejection. For centuries, democracies have prided themselves on their ability to conduct rational debate. And yet, they are still shaped by serious ethnic, religious and economic injustices. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that many of those who most passionately care about remedying those injustices are willing to swap the traditional rules of liberal discourse for a game of Rhetorical Calvinball.
But the rules of rational debate are there for a reason. They are tools for reaching agreement and uncovering the truth. And for all of the legitimate frustrations over the deep injustices of contemporary democracies, it is often these very rules which have allowed the poor and oppressed to force those with greater power and privilege to give them a hearing. Giving up on these rules is not only bad because they are needed for rational debate; it is bad because those who build a world of make-believe will fail to remedy the injustices that incense them.
Consider the ad hominem fallacy. If you offer an argument that x is true, and I respond by attacking you, I’m not actually addressing the argument that x is true. If I question your motives, I’m just changing the subject from the truth of x to an unrelated question about your personality. But even if you are a bad person, you might have given a good argument for x. And if you’ve given a good argument for x, this gives me a compelling reason to believe your proposition.
The reason why it’s bad to commit the ad hominem fallacy, then, is not that it hurts your feelings or deprives you of a deserved rhetorical victory. It’s that ad hominem arguments make it harder for us to get to the bottom of a question—and that’s something that even those who commit this fallacy should have reason to avoid.
Something similar holds for the straw man fallacy. If you offer an argument that x is true, and I respond by attacking a different argument that x is true, I’m changing the subject. There are many bad arguments for true conclusions. So the fact that I can dismantle a bad argument doesn’t mean that your argument is bad, or your conclusion false. It is only by considering the best arguments on either side of an issue that I can make progress toward understanding the truth of a matter that may be extremely important to me.
The core rules of rational debate are means to an end: the agonistic search for truth. In sports, teams advance a common goal—fun, or perhaps the pursuit of extreme feats of athleticism—by competing against one another. Similarly, in debate, disputants—including those who have a keen desire to see each other lose—advance a shared goal of truth-directed inquiry by attempting to dismantle each other’s arguments.
Some people will, of course, be tempted to prioritize winning over truthing. Does it really matter that my side might be in the wrong on some small matter if it allows me to defeat a political adversary who opposes things I deeply care about?
There are two reasons to resist this argument. First, the number of people who can smell that someone is trying to sell them on bullshit is much larger than partisans or ideologues tend to believe. Staking your chances of realizing noble goals on the ability to stop people from seeing the falsity of your claims is far less clever a strategy than armchair political strategists tend to assume.
Second, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to found a just society upon a series of falsehoods. Even a lie that truly is noble remains a lie. Over time, people are likely to realize and resent and eventually reject it. That is why agonistic progress towards truth is necessary for agonistic progress towards justice: in virtually every case, those who are willing to jettison truth in favor of justice will wind up sacrificing both.
So I remain optimistic that the rules of rational debate will ultimately prove more resilient than they now appear. Persuasion is a slow process. Giving someone good reasons to change their mind won't cause scales to fall from their eyes. But even skilled practitioners of Rhetorical Calvinball may—as they loudly try to change the rules on you—quietly develop doubts if you present them with a compelling argument.
So don’t leave the field. Keep on arguing. Just remember to play by the rules.
Matt Lutz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University.
There is a category confusion in this essay. While it is certainly the case that all “classic game[s] of debate” are also arguments, it is most definitely not the case that all arguments are also debates, classic or otherwise. Most arguments are not debates at all, but a kind of low-grade, managed conflict whose purpose has little or nothing to do with “the agonistic search for truth.” People who have children will recognize the difference instantly, as will people with parents, people with siblings, people who are married, people with coworkers, people with friends, people whose name has a vowel in it somewhere, etc.
The difference between debate - and all of the other forms that argument takes - matters a lot. For people engaged in rational debate the pursuit of “winning” makes a kind of interim sense. The antagonistic scheme enforces a rigor that practically no one can bring to bear on him or herself. Rational debate stress tests the structural integrity of our thought. For the serious person “losing” a real debate is the greatest victory of all. Truth itself will have won out, and its devotee rewarded, however uncomfortable the journey. Serious people can remember times when they discovered errors in their thinking and their convictions then shifted. Ideologues cannot.
In any case what most of us are dealing with in our day to day lives is not the challenge and opportunity of rational debate. Matt Lutz’s piece acknowledges as much. The ancient admonition about where not to cast your pearls applies.
Still, the swollen river of irrationality rolls on. Many of us – more and more urgently - can’t help feeling the need to take some kind of stand if liberal culture itself is not to be washed out to sea. My experience has been that arguing to win makes everything worse, poisons personal relationships, and provides at best a sullen acquiescence in the “defeated” and at worst a resentful truce. But what is to be done? These times seem different, when “this too shall pass” sounds anemic, timid, irresponsible. One possibility is that we exchange the rhetoric of debate with something like the rhetoric of inquiry, where the aim of our speech becomes the asking of questions rather than the discovery of conclusions . Can we, by example, show people how to actually think? Can we make it our objective to have people think who are only accustomed to having thoughts? To do so we will have to think ourselves. We can begin by asking, “what is the nature of conversations that induce actual thinking?” It is unlikely that the answer will be, “By winning arguments.”
I'm sympathetic with the spirit of this argument, but I think the issue of ad hominem argument is trickier than you suggest. You write, "If you offer an argument that x is true, and I respond by attacking you, I’m not actually addressing the argument that x is true. If I question your motives, I’m just changing the subject from the truth of x to an unrelated question about your personality. But even if you are a bad person, you might have given a good argument for x. And if you’ve given a good argument for x, this gives me a compelling reason to believe your proposition."
But what if I offer an argument in support of free speech, arguing that it's both a human right and an important element of democratic culture. You then respond by pointing to the way in which powerful elites (including courts) have invoked "free speech" in order insulate those with economic power from regulation or redistributive measures (or those with social power to dominate the voices of those without it), thereby increasing inequality in a way that is bad for democracy. Is that an "ad hominem" argument? It's not in the sense that it's not attacking the motives of the person making the argument, but it is in the sense that it's not directly attacking my argument "on the merits" but instead pointing to the function that my argument as served (which is what "motivation" arguments are usually trying to do).
Is that a legitimate argument or Calvinball? This is not a rhetorical question--I think it's a hard question. The point is just to complicate the idea of what ad hominem argument consists in. Anyway, thanks for your very interesting essay.